September 8, 2012 – January 20, 2013
Over the decades of his career, Frank Stella has embraced an ever more expansive and inclusive exploration of painting as a spatial entity. Inasmuch as actual physical parts form shapes and surfaces to be painted, Stella’s rich illusionistic mix has pushed composition outward from the wall, while retaining the idea of pictorialism in the use of pattern and gesture to create an anomalous fictive space on any given surface. Sculptural three-dimensionality, as it is presented here, is an extension of painting. Though Stella, like Richard Serra, is not shy of scale, the overarching issue here is not the presence of focused materiality but the potential for material to form an open-ended Baroque extension, the consequence being that an illusionistic painting now exists in real space. Stella’s use of paint does not enhance the physical presence of form, but rather undermines or shapes it.
The 63 large-format paintings, reliefs, sculptures, and models on view fully represent each phase of Stella’s career, from his work prior to the Black Paintings, to the Irregular Polygons, to the first metal reliefs, to the architectonic designs. Within each series the impression is of one work producing the next, until a jump is made to explore implications raised by the group as a whole. When the Black, Aluminum, and Copper series appeared one after the other, Stella was seen as the transitive artist linking Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism. Now it is easy to see that the artist was on the way to a very non-Minimal place. Stella’s characteristic pragmatism never changed, but his desire to continue searching led to ever more complex and disjunctive models than could ever have been anticipated. An increasingly reductive or logical path had been expected; the lyrical melding of geometry and gesture had not been. Stella’s oeuvre is clearly linked to Russian Constructivism, a movement cut off by political upheaval at its productive and inventive beginning. In also considering the historical implications of Caravaggio’s work on the creation of space in painting, Stella has turned this space inside out, made it of solids, and dematerialized it again.
Nothing in the retrospective seems oversized; the architectural context at the museum Wolfsburg does not in any way reduce the impact of the works. Rather the space puts the work at ease, minimizing the impression of its extraordinary size. In a smaller environment, spatial confinement can condense the relation of the human body to the work, whereas here that particular tension is released given the size of the galleries. Within the museum’s vast interior, the configuration of connected spaces allows the viewer to circulate, often passing the same works more than once as it is possible not only to retrace one’s steps but also to see a work from a different vantage point on leaving one partially contained space and rendering another.
Works in the Protractor Series were made between 1967 and 1971. “Damascus Gate, Variation 1” (1969) is linear and ornamental. Each band can breathe, as a line of canvas is left visible between applied colors, an effect perhaps historically exemplified by Matisse’s “Red Studio” (1911). For Stella as much as for Matisse, ornamentality is emotional and musical—intuitive color choices are made in a non-systematic way and are not decorative in affect. Color was a subject of great importance for German immigrants Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann, both of whom were influential teachers of Stella’s upon settling in America. The impact of American abstract painting post-1945 in Germany was enormously significant. As well as Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman and others inspired many artists including Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel, and Gerhard Richter. It is a transatlantic cross current. That this exhibition occurs in Germany is not surprising in the context of this exchange. It is also notable that most of the work is on loan from German collections.
“Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton” (1988) incorporates mixed media on a chassis of shaped aluminum parts. Patterns and gestures are visually at odds with grids and conical illusionistic shading. It is a very eventful piece; planes and colors twist and project out toward the viewer. “The Broken Jug: A Comedy [D3] (left handed version)” (2007), a sculpture made from sheets of marine plywood and pine, is like Bauhaus paper cutting exercises made large and pulled up into space from the floor, rather than from a table top. In particular, we find that abstraction is far from exhausted here, with traditions and technical innovations freely mixing as Stella experiments and evolves. It would appear that Modernism has not yet ventured into Postmodernism for Stella; Modernism is instead an ongoing project. From the earliest works here, dating from the 1950s, to the most recent, made in our current decade, Stella’s engagement with formal and conceptual renewal seems tireless.